history of gymnastics

We explain the history of gymnastics, its development in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modernity to the present day.

Origin of gymnastics

Gymnastics is an activity that tests the physical capacities of the human being through a regulated series of balance, strength, agility, flexibility, and resistance exercises.

In some of its modalities, gymnastics is a competitive sport. Aerobic, acrobatic, rhythmic, artistic, and trampoline gymnastics belong to this group, among others. These last three disciplines are also part of the Olympic Games.

The term gymnastics comes from the ancient Greek gymnós, “naked,” since athletes exercised without clothes in Greece. The place where the exercises were practiced was the gym. In ancient Greece, gymnastics was developed as a sports discipline.

As a general physical activity, gymnastics has existed since prehistoric times: the acquisition and development of skill occupied a central place in survival, for which it was essential to know how to attack and defend.

Later, physical exercise diversified into different swimming, wrestling, rowing, horseback riding, and archery practices. Such practices, carried out at first with fines, were also carried out with competitive penalties and were integrated into religious rituals.

Gymnastics in ancient times
history of gymnastics old Olympia
Sports competitions are consecrated to the gods of Olympus.

Gymnastics as a sport emerged in Greece around the 8th century BC. C. However, the practice of physical exercises in a systematic way is much earlier. Several testimonies are preserved from Crete, China, and Egypt in which people are shown performing various athletic activities. Some of these testimonies date back to 2000 BC. c.

For the ancient Greeks, gymnastics was part of a set of practices aimed at promoting physical and mental health, which, in turn, was part of an ideal of human beauty. These practices were carried out in the gyms’ preparation and physical training of children and young people.

Gymnastics includes activities considered separate sports, such as boxing, wrestling, and athletics. The Olympic Games, established in the year 776 a. C, came up between their tests and other exercises.

Gymnastics played a central role in Greek education. In Sparta, it was subordinate to combat readiness. In Athens, on the other hand, it was part of comprehensive education in which the teaching of art and philosophy accompanied physical education.

The Romans, inheritors of the Greek culture, adopted the Spartan conception of gymnastics, which was mainly a means to achieve a military objective. Soldiers were instructed in physical preparation to make it more effective.

Physical training was also essential for the gladiators, the center of the Roman circus shows. For the rest, the Romans did not share the Greek idea of ​​the educational value of gymnastics, to which, in any case (and with its military importance), they assigned a “hygienic” value linked to health.

Gymnastics in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

In the Middle Ages, gymnastics lost importance due to Christianity’s rejection of the body cult practiced in ancient Greece. However, in the traveling artistic companies, mountebanks, jugglers, and tightrope walkers continued to perform specific exercises, such as cartwheels and other acrobatic activities.

During the Renaissance, interest in gymnastics resurfaced in the context of the revaluation of Greek culture that characterized the time. In 1569, the Italian physician and pedagogue Hieronymus Mercurialis (1530-1606) published De Arte gymnastics, considered the first treatise on sports medicine, in which gymnastics addressed health maintenance.

A few years later, in 1599, the Italian acrobat and tightrope walker Archange Tuccaro (1535-1602) published Dialogues on the Exercise of Jumping in the Air, a book containing more than 80 engravings illustrating 50 acrobatic exercises.

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